The Spirited Discussions series is intended to be an uninhibited exploration of a topic related to politics, policy, and discourse. This week, I chatted with Dr. Kahlib Fischer, Chair of the Helms School of Government at Liberty University about misperceptions of and by the Religious Right. If you like what you read, check out more spirited discussions here.
Joe Schuman: Thanks for joining us, Professor Fischer. I think to be useful if you gave us a little bit of background about yourself and what you do. If possible, if you could try to briefly encapsulate your political beliefs—what you believe and why—that would be great as well.
Kahlib Fischer: My name is Kahlib Fischer. I am the Department Chair at the Helms School of government at Liberty University, which is one of the nexus points of the Religious Right. I am a Professor here and teach government courses. I love interacting with students and love thoughtful interaction and debate, especially when we disagree. I am an Evangelical, born-again Christian. What am I politically? Well, certainly more conservative. But I would like to think that I am a Christ-follower first. I would like to think that my faith in Jesus Christ is not determined by my politics but the other way around. I’d like to think that because of that, there is humility in what I believe, and that I am willing to learn and grow. My journey of faith has challenged me to question what I believe about life and what I believe about God. It’s not always fun but it has been very important for my growth as a human being and professor. In some ways I might be your typical conservative Christian: pro-life, limited government, et cetera but as we will discuss, I’m very mindful of some issues today, like crony Capitalism, that we need to reign in and that conservatives could be more sensitive to.
JS: The term Religious Right gets thrown around a lot. Is that a term that you identify with?
KF: I don’t know. I am actually doing some research on Christian fundamentalism. And that term, too, can mean many things. I don’t consider myself a fundamentalist, which can often mean a very reductionist view of God and the Bible. I would argue that fundamentalism doesn’t take the Bible seriously enough so it can turn into some pretty dogmatic positions. But I think some people on the outside looking in would say that I am part of the Religious Right based on the things that I believe politically. But I always push back and say that there is so much nuance.
JS: I think that’s probably always true of generalizations. That they are used by people on the outside to characterize someone else.
KF: I don’t want to, on the other hand, avoid a label just because I don’t like it.
JS: I really want to get to the core question which is that, from where I sit as a secular urban millennial, I think there is a lot of misperception of what people call the Religious Right. I’m curious. What do you think are some perceptions of the Religious Right?
Is a Christian Evangelical who has a conservative view of scripture, are they de facto a misogynist by virtue of them being pro-life?
KF: All of these are tricky because, I suspect, in some cases the people on the outside looking in are right. But on the other hand, I feel that some of the perceptions are not accurate. For instance, is a Christian Evangelical who has a conservative view of scripture, are they de facto a misogynist by virtue of them being pro-life? I certainly don’t believe so. Or if they have a “complementarian” view of scripture, which says that men and women are equal before God but that men are called to lead the family and serve as leaders in the Church while women are welcomed to lead in other ways is business and politics and the home and even in the Church if leadership is defined as influence. This perspective is often seen as chauvinistic, but for a lot of reasons, I would reject that characteristic.
Another example: is one homophobic if they believe that homosexuality is a sin? Sin is nothing unusual in the human experience. We are all broken. And we are all a mess. But we are all a beautiful mess. We were made in God’s image. We need one another. We walk through life together. I am happy to discuss any of those positions individually and I am happy to be challenged too.
If I had to throw two others out there: racist and hate the poor. These accusations lack a lot of nuance and I reject them.
JS: I would like to flip the question on its head. I was curious if you see misperceptions of what we might call the Secular Left in the communities and organizations that you are involved with. Do you see that happening in the other direction and if so, do any specific instances come to mind?
KF: Of course not, because we Christians never make mistakes. Kidding of course … Certainly, things can get reduced to the culture wars. And everything becomes “the liberal secularists” and their agenda. Things can be reduced to the worst case scenario and a political opinion can be taken too far as a straw man. Like the notion that Marxism de facto equates to Leninism and Stalinism, for instance. I know Marxists that want nothing to do with the violence and tyranny of Leninism and Stalinism.
I don’t think you can be that self-righteous as a Christian.
I remember growing up during the homosexuality movement. Sometimes if you are not careful in the Religious Right you might hear “Oh, that’s disgusting” or something similar. I don’t think that does justice to what the Bible says about who we are and the nature of sin. I don’t think you can be that self-righteous as a Christian.
JS: On the topic of stereotypes, you told me previously that you don’t watch Fox News. The statistics on daily news viewership on Fox, MSNBC, and CNN are surprisingly low, actually, compared to the number of people who watch the Super Bowl or the Bachelor. But unfortunately it is probably the most accessible way for someone to stereotype the other side.
KF: You know I don’t know if I am an outlier within Christian Evangelicals. What I can tell you is my reading of scripture, as an Evangelical who believes that the Bible is the word of God, I think that requires a lot more nuance than is often articulated even in Christian conservative circles.
JS: On the topic of nuance, you brought up some examples of where you had engaged with some folks on the other side of the aisle. I wanted to quickly ask about that.
KF: I am involved in a messaging board—a sports messaging board ironically—where there are a lot of liberal types and even some flat out Marxists. I remember making the case for the free market to them: here’s why it maximizes human freedom, and allows you to use your gifts as you see fit as long as you bring value to the customer and are not exploiting people. And someone said to me: “We haven’t had the free market for years. What we have now is something entirely different.” I was surprised by that comment. First, I wanted to know what was going on now as they define it. And, second, apparently these guys don’t hate the free market. That was intriguing. We began to dig into that further.
Where we found agreement was that after the 2008 financial crisis, we basically rewarded the big banks for their risky behavior by bailing them out. A typical conservative Christian might be prone to think that business is good and government is bad. But with a clear reading of scripture you see in the Old Testament warnings against how the rich and powerful exploit the poor and how they use their political power to do so. For instance, in the book of Isiah, there is a terrible judgement against the rich and the powerful. About how they use their influence to game the political system and to exploit people. That’s in the Bible. That isn’t Karl Marx saying that. In the book of James, he basically chastises his readers. He says the rich person comes and dresses up all nice and you treat them well and you treat them with honor. But the poor person comes in their dirty clothes and you say sit at my feet.
JS: In your conversations online, did you cite some of these sources? I’m curious what your discussants response would be to them.
KF: Well sometimes they cite them to me, actually. The difference, though, is that when I read the Bible my default is not to go to a state mandated Marxist perspective. I would look for alternative mechanisms. Nonetheless, I would argue to Christians that big business can be just as dangerous as big government. I think where a lot of conservative Christians potentially fall short is ignoring the powers of big business in terms of rent seeking, limiting competition, and other forms of exploitation that certainly undermines the free market.
JS: I recall in our last conversation that you had some interesting views on social justice, which is a phrase that I associate with the Left and often the far Left. But you had mentioned that you yourself believe in social justice to some extent and that you find support for it in scripture.
KF: What I get a lot from people on the Left is, “Haven’t you read your own Bible? It says to care for the poor.” Obviously. Of course it does. But it doesn’t say that it is the state’s job. The nuance is that the Bible makes it clear that both the Church and the state are both supposed to care for the poor. You don’t see scripture explicitly recommending social welfare public policy. But you don’t see it denying it either.
To take one example, in the Old Testament, there is the year of Jubilee. Every 49th year, debts are to be forgiven and land is to be returned. That’s radical. It keeps people from getting too rich and powerful and it saves children from the poor decisions of their parents. Or even if they just had bad luck. It helps prevent poverty from passing down from one generation to the next. That’s very telling for me. It is very instructive to me and how I live my life with whatever wealth I have.
JS: The nuance you elucidate between believing in the ends of social justice but disagreeing not the means is really revealing. I think that level of nuance is critical for produce discourse but it happens far too rarely… On that note, I wanted to get your thoughts on the meta question here. I am curious to know what, in your opinion, is the problem with civil discourse as you see it?
It takes humility to listen and to admit you might be wrong. It’s scary to change your world view.
KF: I think humans are self-righteous and scared. We reduce things to the simplest version—the straw man—and our fears lead us to automatically jump to the worst case scenario. It takes humility to listen and to admit you might be wrong. It’s scary to change your world view. I see that among Christians and I see that among everybody. It’s the human condition.
JS: I agree one hundred percent. If I had to boil my answer down to one word, I would say “effort.” Russ Roberts has a wonderful quote, where he says: “The underlying problem is very old. Most of us know very little. The world is complex and it is hard to know what is going on. Subtlety is not our strong suit. We like simple stories without much nuance.” What I hear him saying is that civility is hard. It takes more effort to try to understand someone you don’t agree with, it takes more effort to try to understand where your beliefs are coming from, and then to try and reconcile the two.
KF: Public policy is complex. How do you interpret the data, did you have the right research question, did you include the right variables? What are the constitutional, moral, legal guidelines? There is so much to consider. There’s just not a lot of room to be reductionist in public policy.
When it comes to discourse and debate, if you go back to scripture, there are versus such as “Rebuke a wiseman and he will love you. Rebuke a scorner and he will hate you.” I’ve learned to take criticism from a scorner in stride but I’m always grateful when people can challenge my understanding and do it in a loving way.
JS: Any closing thoughts?
KF: Anybody who understands the Gospel should realize that we must engage in diverse perspectives—not because you have abandoned the truth but because you realize that the truth is so much bigger than any one perspective.
If you like this piece, check out more spirited discussions here.